The Orthodox Union - Publications

A Discussion of Pluralism

Pluralism: Rx for Orthodox Intolerance
Rabbi Chaim Eisen

We have heard much lately regarding "Orthodox intransigence" and "divisiveness." Recently, at a major campus in northeastern United States with a large (overwhelmingly nonreligious) Jewish population, graffiti was scrawled menacingly in front of the building in which religious Jewish students conduct their minyan, demanding: "End Ortho Oppression!" Evidently, we are all quite a stiff-necked people. But especially in this case, one suspects underlying issues run much deeper and warrant serious consideration rather than shrill slogans. I think some clarification is in order.

I know many American Jews have difficulty understanding how the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which operates in deference to halachah, can wield such power in a state most of whose citizens are admittedly not religious. But -- while I don't deny the existence of political deals, which are apparently endemic features of democracy -- survey after survey here confirms that most of us Israelis, irrespective of religious observance, prefer it this way.

I recall a fellow student at Columbia University, many years ago, who grew up as a nonreligious Israeli in West Germany. He once described to me a "Shabbaton" organized by a visiting "American Reform rabbi," during which the latter recited kiddush, with a cup of wine in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. I reiterate that my acquaintance was not religious; he did not personally object to kindling a fire on the Sabbath. Yet, to him, there was something fraudulent -- even revolting -- about claiming to represent a religion defined by an historic tradition of laws, while flouting those laws. Let him describe himself as nonreligious -- my acquaintance concluded contemptuously -- just don't be nonreligious and claim to be a rabbi!

Even today, despite repeated blitzes by the press, most Israelis simply do not take alternative "rabbinates" seriously. Thus reported the Jerusalem Post recently, quoting a leading "Conservative rabbi": "Israel as a sovereign democratic society is not ready to recognize and grant legitimacy to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism._ To my astonishment, I found that in a secret vote of conscience, most [Israelis] believed that a Jew is only someone born of a Jewish mother or converted according to halacha" ("In Jerusalem," 4 April 1997, p. 1). Likewise, because of the same sense of historical integrity, most sizable Jewish communities in the Old World today have an official rabbinate that is beholden to historic (i.e., halachic) Judaism. Don't American Jews wonder why, for example, European Jewish communities aren't noticeable on the barricades together with them, haranguing and threatening Israel's elected leaders over the Chief Rabbinate's role here; why virtually no other community seems so incensed by a halachic rabbinate's hegemony?

A further clarification is sorely needed: Despite demagogic rhetoric to the contrary, this has nothing to do with delegitimizing Jews or their Jewishness. "A member of Israel, even if he has sinned, is a member of Israel" (Sanhedrin 44a). Anyone Jewish remains Jewish regardless of personal foibles, fallings and failings. I always stress to my students that Judaism never claimed Jews are perfect. On the contrary: the Talmud states that the Torah was given specifically to Israel "because they are brazen" (Beitzah 25b). If Jews were perfect, they wouldn't need Judaism. In practice, every Jew today decides for himself to what extent to subscribe to Judaism's standards, and no one realistically contemplates any alternative scenario. Matters of individual conscience are clearly not the issue.

The issue, rather, is whether anyone has a right to change those standards -- which have defined Judaism for millennia -- unilaterally, in effect imposing such fundamental changes upon historic Judaism. The myth that Jewish law "changes with the times," subject only to "rabbinic will," is an outrageous fabrication without a shred of credible historical evidence. Of course, we realize that the world changes, and with it, the situations in which Jewish law is applied. Obviously, such circumstances can lead to what superficially appear to be novel and even revolutionary solutions. But any deeper understanding of the actual nature of such solutions belies such facile conclusions. One does not tinker with a legal system whose source one believes is divine. It is essentially the same traditional law, both Mosaic and rabbinic, which is continually applied and reapplied anew.

The term "Jew" has such an historical meaning, in accordance with a voluminous corpus of Jewish law, written and oral, whose foundations derive from the Torah itself. Historically, a Jew is a person either born to a Jewish mother or converted through a process explicitly outlined for at least the past two millennia since it was codified in Talmudic law. This principle, while rooted in the remote past, still has numerous practical ramifications every day in traditional Jewish living. For example, only a Jew may lead communal prayers or be counted in a minyan or be called to the Torah. Only a Jew may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. And, of course, only a Jew may be married to another Jew. Please note that all these statements are purely definitional. A tally of Jews who would not object to marrying a non-Jew or burying a non-Jew in a Jewish cemetery simply evades the issue. Similarly, to protest that, after Auschwitz, Jews should no longer have to "prove" their Jewishness because the Nazis yemach shemam murdered everyone indiscriminately is logically irrelevant and morally repugnant: Certainly we should do our utmost to protect the life, security, and well-being of anyone who is persecuted as a Jew, whether actually Jewish or not. (Indeed, we should do our utmost to protect the life, security, and well-being of every decent human being, irrespective of religion, race, nationality, and creed.) But are we beholden to the Nazis for our definition of a Jew? Does being Jewish signify nothing more than being vilified as one? Are there Jews so devoid of any meaningful identity that they must solicit one from their oppressors? The Nuremberg laws considered any person with three Jewish grandparents to be Jewish, even if he and his parents all practiced another religion since birth; the law of 1941 extended this ruling under certain circumstances to a non-Jew with even a single Jewish grandparent. Jews bear a prescription of incomparably greater seniority. To pretend that this prescription and its ramifications do not exist or have not existed for at least the past two millennia is historically dishonest. It is one matter to choose whom to marry. It is quite another to impose upon the Jewish community at large -- by unilaterally ignoring the implications and changing the rules -- a situation in which one can no longer be confident that one's prospective spouse is, by historical standards, Jewish, and therefore, that one's children and grandchildren will be Jewish.

Without this background, it is impossible to understand the conflict of the so-called progressive movements with halachic Judaism. What they demand is not freedom but approbation: to treat Judaism as a composite of equivalent "sects" with mutually recognized legitimacy. Thus, when a philanthropist recently offered funds for a synagogue on the Tel Aviv University campus, the left wing was in an uproar. Under the battle cry of "Equivalence!" it was decided the donation would be accepted only under the condition that two synagogues of identical size be constructed, one "Orthodox" and one "Reform." It made no difference that hundreds of religious students would make use of the "Orthodox" facility and an exhaustive survey found a total of two students who described themselves as "Reform." Even the leaderships of the Conservative and Reform movements concede that their constituency is negligibly small in Israel. Nevertheless, they -- in alliance with the political left wing here, with its own political agenda to de-Judaize the State of Israel altogether -- indignantly decry Israel's failure to conform to American norms of moral relativism and "equivalence." Hence, they denounce the status quo that has existed in Israel since its creation (which, by injunction of the Israel Supreme Court, must now be codified as law) as creating a divisive wedge in Jewry.

But who is "creating" what "wedge"? Any members of the Conservative and Reform movements in America who are dissatisfied with the consequences of the democratic process in Israel are obviously free to come here and attempt to change democratically those consequences. (The same applies, of course, to religious Jews in America who gripe about religious inadequacies here.) Isn't it incredibly arrogant to choose to remain in the Diaspora and demand that we Israelis bow to American dictates -- or imply that we don't have enough insight and intelligence to decide for ourselves whether to take alternative "rabbinates" seriously? But this, too, while certainly objectionable, is besides the point. The wedge that has sundered Jewish unity was created by those who diverged from Jewish tradition, not those who simply perpetuated the way of life that has sustained Judaism for millennia. It results from the flouting, not the upholding, of historical prescriptions; it is a consequence of the departure from, not the defense of, the original status quo. Since traditional Judaism defers to an historical conception of legitimacy, it can never consider Judaism a composite of equally legitimate "sects." An appeal to self-defined so-called "good manners" in the face of so fundamental a matter of conscience is irrelevant. Of course, we can (and must) respect every decent, respectable Jew and Gentile. But it is absurd to demand that we even tacitly certify as legitimately "Jewish" an ideology or a set of rules that, as a matter of historical continuity, is definitionally not so. And it is unconscionable to expect us to acquiesce to unilaterally changed standards we recognize as historically unacceptable, be they in matters of personal status, kashrut, or any other aspect of Jewish life.

Such severance of historical continuity is not without antecedent. Yet citing the most obvious, historic precedent -- when a group of Jews unilaterally relaxed the halachic requirements for conversion and the way of life that distinguished them as Jews -- truly fills me with trepidation. It happened around 1900 years ago, largely under the leadership of Sha'ul of Tarshish (a.k.a. Paul of Tarsus). This is no flippant analogy. Early Christians were religious Jews; their dispute with their brethren concerned one major issue -- hardly peripheral, but also not definitional -- namely: had the Messiah already arrived? Undoubtedly they would have remained, for better or for worse, a sect of Judaism, but for two pivotal changes: Once halachic living was abandoned, their way of life no longer effectively distinguished them as Jews; and, more critically, once halachic conversion was compromised, they could no longer be viewed as authentic coreligionists -- in matters of marriage, life, and death -- by other Jews. Please do not misunderstand me: I am not, God forbid, advocating severance. I am merely noting the point at which it will have inevitably occurred. It does not and necessarily cannot depend on any action initiated by traditional Judaism. The definitions don't change. But any institution that institutionally flouts the definitions institutionally severs the bonds.

I fear we have come to a crossroads, and all of us would do well to recognize it. Two paths diverge from here -- but, without determined effort to the contrary, it is painfully clear where the Jewish People is already heading. A number of years ago, an old student of mine described to me his experiences as a camp counselor for Jewish youth in the former Soviet Union. In the wake of 70 years of communist hegemony and the tempestuous collapse of the system, no one really knew which of the campers was actually Jewish. Accordingly, the camp administrators advised the counselors to employ a simple technique: Encourage the campers to describe their grandparents, especially their maternal grandmothers. If the maternal grandmother had some sense of Jewish identity or preserved some aspects of Jewish practice, she must have been authentically Jewish; so were her daughters and their children. Yet, for all its elegant simplicity, this technique is rapidly approaching obsolescence. I remember, as an entering freshman at Columbia University, becoming friendly with a young man from the mid-West, who described to me with pride how active he was in his Reform community. Once, much later, he mentioned incidentally that his mother was not Jewish. It should be clear that, irrespective of any preferences or prejudices, traditional Judaism cannot view such a person as a Jew. Since this incident, over 20 years -- almost a generation -- have passed. It takes little insight to anticipate, by extension, situations just a few years from now in which children of nominally "Jewish" families have no way to establish (much less prove) whether they are in fact "Jewish" by the historical meaning of the term. Already, the Conservative and Reform movements have divested themselves of some (or even most) of the rules that classically distinguished a Jewish way of life and preserved the unity and integrity of the Jewish people. With current trends, however, we will soon have crossed a new threshold: Regardless of people's current affiliations, once they can no longer definitively trace their maternal descent to traditionally defined Jews, traditional Judaism will have no choice but to treat them as being of questionable status, ineligible to marry without undergoing conversion. At that point -- and it is terrifyingly close -- nontraditional movements will have become, de facto, other religions. Indeed, this may already be happening.

There is only one way back from the brink. If a friend has more limiting requirements for kashrut supervision than mine, I will take him only to a restaurant that conforms to his criteria, rather than my own. Whether his are more correct than mine is irrelevant; it is sufficient to appreciate that -- since his are more restrictive -- his regulations are acceptable to me while mine are not to him. Likewise, anyone to whom the unity of the Jewish people is dear must concede that the requirements of the Conservative and Reform movements are not simply different from those of historic Judaism; they are more relaxed. The only common denominator, then, that can preserve Jewish unity is one whose legitimacy is uncontested: the traditional standard of historic Judaism. For the Conservative and Reform movements, this may involve a question of pride, but it is clearly not a matter of conscience: No dogma of theirs invalidates that standard, even if they choose to deem it an unnecessary one. Obviously, the same cannot be said from the perspective of traditional Judaism. For the Conservative and Reform movements, then, this is a moment of reckoning: Having innovated multiple criteria that are irreconcilable with historic Judaism -- and, therefore, inherently divisive -- they alone can re-affirm our common historic bonds. Rather than preaching an empty, fictitious "unity," they alone are in the position to do something real about Jewish unity before it is too late. Such action will demand courage, consideration, and vision. But if the Jewish people is to avoid a repetition of the schism of 1900 years ago, there is no other course. And there is not a moment to lose.

A resident of Jerusalem, Rabbi Eisen has taught at Yeshivat Hakotel and other yeshivot in Israel and lectured on Jewish thought throughout Jerusalem for the past 15 years. As founding editor of the OU journal Jewish Thought, he also wrote and edited numerous essays in this field. In addition to Yeshivat Hakotel, he teaches at the OU-NCSY Israel Center and Michlelet Torah ViRegesh and in the Torah Lecture Corps of the IDF Rabbinate (reserves).



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